France’s doomed efforts to take the fight to ISIS

French President Francois Hollande’s shaky term in office has been characterized by economic cluelessness and the country’s diminution in power, certainly compared with neighboring Germany. However, following the Paris attacks that killed 129 people, he unexpectedly found his voice.

Despite his obvious desolation as to what had just happened to his people, Hollande bravely made clear that France would honor its commitment to take in 30,000 refugees, stressing that they were victims of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rather than its members. He also said his country would fight back against barbarism, and that the French way of life would prevail.

This was stirring stuff, but can France, as Hollande promised, take the war to ISIS? If his rhetoric and resilience seemed new, his policy approach to the Syrian crisis remains all too formulaic.

It is a prime example of atrophied Cold War thinking that Hollande’s first instincts were to marshal great powers from outside the Middle East - Russia and the United States - as the key components of his hoped-for coalition against ISIS, rather than regional and local forces. Without local leadership, success is highly unlikely.

Reasons for failure

There are four reasons Hollande’s policy approach is doomed to fail. First, without local legitimacy in taking on ISIS, outside powers must commit to a long-term military and political occupation. Neither an economically hard-pressed Moscow nor an obviously skittish Washington has the wherewithal or the stomach for another open-ended commitment in the Middle East.

By allying itself so publicly with Moscow - a close ally of Shiite Tehran and Damascus - France’s hoped-for alliance will alienate the Sunni majority in Syria

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Second, great-power involvement is not what it used to be. After the Paris attacks, Washington and Moscow committed to redouble their efforts against ISIS, including restarting bilateral talks over Syria. Both ruled out the use of ground troops in the country, but without infantry it will be impossible to eradicate the group.

As U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have made clear, air power can stem ISIS’s advance, but only boots on the ground will allow the tide to be turned. If neither France, the United States or Russia are prepared to put infantry in Syria and Iraq, the new grand coalition is just the same hollow shell as the old anti-ISIS configurations.

Third, each Western great power lacks a strategic component. France, given its limited resources, cannot fight ISIS on its own. From Paris’s perspective, Russia is fighting the wrong people, overwhelmingly focusing on preserving the Syrian regime by bombing anti-ISIS rebels. The White House seems to want to fight as few people as possible, spending most of its energies avoiding being sucked into an open-ended morass in Syria. These three glaring strategic weaknesses call into question the effectiveness of France’s coalition even before it is formed.

Finally, by latching onto Russia as the key lynchpin of its new anti-ISIS strategy, Paris may be forestalling the one possible coalition that may actually have the local legitimacy and wherewithal to destroy ISIS. By allying itself so publicly with Moscow - a close ally of Shiite Tehran and Damascus - France’s hoped-for alliance will alienate the Sunni majority in Syria, which looks to regional powers Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

If the West is seen as decisively turning to the Shiite pole of power in the Middle East - at the expense of the majority Sunnis - even if ISIS is somehow eradicated, Sunni restiveness in Syria and Iraq is bound to flare up again, fuelled by the West’s short-sighted sectarian choice.

Only a West allied with regional Sunni powers - Turkey and the Gulf states, endowed with local legitimacy and able to put boots on the ground - can form a coalition capable of fighting ISIS and, critically, winning the peace afterward. Hollande’s depressing reversion to the usual Western patterns will not stop the cancer that is ISIS.


Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

Last Update: 06:45 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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